Developer pitches nature angle

Transforming the old, overgrazed Flying Arrow cattle ranch into a luxury playground for golfers ultimately will improve the quality of the meadows, streams and wildlife habitat, claim the developers of the proposed Chateau de Loire retreat overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene.

The promise rests with certification by Audubon International, a group that Kirk-Hughes Development is paying more than $100,000 to create a natural resources master plan that will focus on wildlife habitat, water quality, conservation and energy efficiency for the exclusive, French-themed club on nearly 600 acres near Moscow Bay.

This Audubon has no connection with the National Audubon Society, the century-old birder group named for wildlife artist John James Audubon.

Confusion between the two is as common as a swarm of swallows. People hear “Audubon” and assume the golf course has the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from the renowned bird and conservation group. Giving that impression, some critics have charged, is a marketing ploy to help golf projects with image problems.

Audubon International, financially supported by the U.S. Golf Association, touts itself as a not-for-profit environmental education organization that “inspires millions of people from all walks of life to protect and sustain the land, water, wildlife, and natural resources around them.” Its founder, Ron Dodson, previously was fired from the Audubon Society.

Chateau de Loire officials say there’s nothing misleading in working with Audubon International and they haven’t done anything to promote confusion.

“What can it hurt to have another organization that is monitoring maintenance practices and helping you put together a resource management plan?” said Gary Young, Chateau’s project manager. “I don’t know why anybody would look at that as a negative. It doesn’t make sense to me. Who cares if they are not the Audubon Society?”

The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905 and focuses on birds and conserving and restoring natural ecosystems. Audubon doesn’t endorse or certify golf courses and often opposes such developments over concerns about damage to habitat. The group has a ready-to-go media advisory to provide clarification for anyone who asks if it’s affiliated with Audubon International.

“The confusion happens quite a bit,” said Philip Kavits, the Audubon Society’s vice president for communications. “People know us and know our reputation, therefore we don’t want them to be confused.”

Kavits declined to characterize Audubon International or comment on whether its practices are considered “eco-friendly.” “They are a certifying entity, not a group that people have identified with birds and conservation for the last century,” he said.

The Coeur d’Alene Chapter of the Audubon Society had never heard of the golf-certification group. “We don’t involve ourselves with golf courses,” President Lynn Sheridan said. “But we do put up birdhouses on golf courses.”

Neither Black Rock nor Gozzer Ranch, two existing luxury golf retreats on the lake, hired Audubon International to help with environmental planning.

“We have 14 golf courses and none of them are associated with Audubon International,” said Andy Holloran of Discovery Land Co., which developed Gozzer Ranch. “We have a higher level of standards than they do.”

Mary Terra-Berns, an environmental biologist for Idaho Fish and Game who reviews large developments in North Idaho, said she hadn’t heard of Audubon International before Chateau de Loire.

“It sounds good, it looks good on paper, but it needs to be translated to the ground,” Terra-Berns said. “If it isn’t, it is of very little value.”

Other local courses, including the Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Circling Raven Golf Club, have lower-level affiliations with Audubon International. Both are listed in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, paying annual dues of about $200 for design suggestions.

The more expensive silver certification that Chateau de Loire is seeking would require the developer to follow Audubon International’s design. The base rate is $9,500 with an annual $500 membership fee. Chateau also is paying a $50,000 fixed fee for preparing the natural resources plan, plus travel fees for up to nine site visits and other expenses.

Young said only opponents of Chateau de Loire have raised the Audubon issue.

Norb Twillmann of the group Neighbors for Responsible Growth raised the issue, pointing out that Chateau de Loire’s golf course designer, Michael Hurdzan of the Hurdzan/Fry design firm, sits on Audubon International’s Golf Advisory Council.

Young said Hurdzan pitched the Audubon International certification to Chateau de Loire owner Geraldine Kirk-Hughes, who is making her second attempt to gain county approval for the development.

The county commission rejected the initial plan in 2006, and the developer appealed. Kirk-Hughes and the county reached a mediated agreement allowing the company to file a new plan.

But in September a county hearing examiner recommended denial of the revised proposal, saying the application needed more detail on how the company plans to build on steep slopes, mitigate wetland areas and ensure roads are safe for emergency vehicles. The hearing examiner didn’t mention Audubon International’s involvement but concluded the project “does not appear to have proposed a design that is compatible with the natural characteristics of the area.”

The Kootenai County Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposal Monday night.

Natalie Archambault, project coordinator in the initial proposal for what was then called Chateau Falls at Coeur d’Alene, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. Archambault works for the for-profit company Audubon Environmental Services, the exclusive provider of environmental services to Audubon International’s silver signature and classic programs, according to the group’s Web site.

Dodson, the founder, served in the 1980s as a regional vice president of the National Audubon Society in Albany, N.Y. When the Audubon Society had budget shortfalls, he was fired. He then established his own group, the Audubon Society of the State of New York, and in 1991 began the program to register and certify golf courses under the name Audubon International.

The National Audubon Society lost a suit to block Dodson from using the name. A New York judge wrote that the Audubon Society doesn’t have an exclusive right to the name.

In an August 2000 article in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Dodson said he considers his organization as much a part of the Audubon family as the better-known group. But he conceded, “We’re like that weird uncle up in the attic that nobody wants to talk about at the reunion.”

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